I don’t want to be one of those tourists who goes city shopping, who travels around with a camera glued to their eye, who frantically tries to lengthen the list of places visited just so they can say they’ve been somewhere and have the photos to prove it. They try to add a cosmopolitan air to the image that their friends back home have of them, giving themselves an added edge of importance in the eyes of their social circle. But why travel to foreign countries and spend all that money if you’re only going to spend all your time behind your camera or thinking about how much this particular trip will give you to brag about to your buddies? Why not just buy some pictures of the place, read up on it, and regale your friends with the marvelous information that you’ve learned? Is that any more ridiculous than just passing through and checking off one more place on your list of super duper travels?
I don’t want to be one of those tourists. I want to be one who thinks about what I see. After all, why is it so important that I see it? What is it about this particular site that draws me to itself? Is it just because everyone else in the world has seen it? Am I just trying to fill out my checklist of famous monuments and scenes? Or am I actually thinking about what I see in front of me, about the construction of an edifice that took decades to finish, the meticulous care that went into a painting, the immense complexity of an landscape that God’s hand spread out for all eyes to see and wonder at? Am I thinking about everything that has happened in this place, the people who have come through in various stages of life and history? Because that’s what I want to do. I want to be cogent of everything this site entails. I want to stop completely in my journey, sit down, and think about what I’m looking at and experiencing.
In some places, like Segovia, where Marisol and I were last Friday, the history can be overwhelming if you really stop to think about what the town has been through. And yet it makes seeing the Roman aqueduct so much more incredible when you imagine the ancient crews of workmen cutting huge blocks of stone just so and hauling them by cart over untamed terrain to the building site, where they fit together each perfectly made piece in slender arches and columns that tower above the countryside, all without the use of modern machines, or even mortar for that matter. Today, the stones are rounded, softened by close to two millennia of existence, but they still fit so precisely together that they look as though they will remain in their perfectly engineered state of balance for yet another two thousand years. How many gallons of water has this structure moved across the land? How many acres of land did it water, giving life and moisture where there was not enough? How long did it take the Romans to build the entire length, of which the part in Segovia is but a small section? How many people were involved in the building of it? What was it like to build it? How many millions of pairs of eyes have seen it? How many millions of pairs of feet have walked in its shadow? How many millions of pairs of hands have touched the rough surface of the stone, feeling the solidity of the pillars? What were their names? What did they wear? Were they boisterous and noisy like the groups of schoolchildren that flock the stairs going up and down the wall nearby? Did they sit in peace on the small stretch of grass and contemplate this ancient masterpiece? Did they look at it only through the lens of their camera? Did they quietly sketch the perfectly engineered symmetry as the sun shone through the curving arches?
It’s intriguing to think about what the town’s main square, the Plaza Mayor, has been through too, from the declaration of Isabel as queen over Castile y León (yes, this would be the Isabel who unified all of Spain by marring Ferdinand of Aragon and who later sent Columbus off on his journey to find the Indies), to the present day swarm of tourists coming to eat in cafes or view the monolithic cathedral with its myriad gothic spires. There’s the stamp of feet and squirl of oboes and snare drums as a parade of townsfolk in traditional dress and bearing fresh produce circle around the Plaza on their way to offer thanks for the harvest in the cathedral. There’s the flocks of pigeons that circle overhead, alighting on one cathedral spire just to take off in a scattered swirl and re-condense on another. There’s the one-legged beggar outside the cathedral door. There’s the old woman hawking beautiful hand-embroidered shawls. How many stories could these stones tell? How many conversations have they heard? How many events have they seen take place?
And the rest of the city? It used to be the hub of a kingdom. It still boasts of its Alcázar, the beautiful castle that once housed royalty and later the royal academy of artillery before being opened to the public view. But it has been centuries since this town has seen the hustle and bustle attendant on royal life. And yet it is still full of vitality, the intricate decorative patterns on the walls of nearly every building echoing back the tramp of feet and the happy shout of laughter, the narrow streets channeling streams of humanity through the network of calles and plazas at a slow yet steady pace.
And so I think. I imagine. I look at relics of the past and ponder what they once were, what they once saw. I don’t want to run by in search of the next thing to check off my list and miss everything that what I have in front of me has to offer. There’s a certain richness behind everything that I want to find, that I want to taste of. Because it’s true, hay que pensar.